THE first time Vicky D. visited her 16-year-old son at a California Youth Authority (CYA) facility, she could hardly believe her eyes. David had two chipped teeth, two black eyes, a fat lip, and bruises all over his body. He'd been in the custody of the CYA for less than a month. It didn't take David long to figure out that he needed some protection from the more streetwise wards. So he ``claimed'' a gang.

Like most new CYA wards from northern California, David had arrived at the Northern Reception Center-Clinic in Stockton for diagnostic testing and evaluation.

``At first I was being by myself,'' David recalled in an interview. ``Then a bunch of white guys asked if I wanted to kick [fight] with them. I said, `Fine.' And then for the next few months, I was claiming.''

For almost every Sunday of the past year, David's mother or stepfather has driven the 75 miles from San Jose to Stockton to visit the boy. Neither of them likes what they see.

``The last time we went to see him, he had his back and arms all sliced up from some crazy kid who'd jumped him with a razor blade,'' says Ken D., David's stepfather. ``We fear for his life there - and this is our system for kids.''

But it's an outdated system that fails both the kids and society, according to critics.

``David will probably be worse off when he comes out than when he went in,'' says Daniel Macallair of the National Center on Institutions and Alternatives (NCIA). ``You look at his history and you see very minor delinquent behavior. But we've put him in a training ground for violence, which is what institutions like these are. They condition you to become accustomed to violent behavior, which is exactly the opposite of what society wants.''

Compared with most wards at CYA, David's criminal record is lightweight. His most serious offenses are breaking into and vandalizing a school, along with eight other youngsters, when he was 14. Then, when he was 15, he and two other boys crawled through an open window of a house, where David stole a pocket calculator. That incident, coupled with a jaywalking ticket and a probation violation, earned him a five-month sentence to the Harold Holden Boys' Ranch in Santa Clara County. He started serving his time on Nov. 4, 1986.

With each step deeper into the system, however, David's situation became worse - not better. Shortly before Christmas, one of David's best friends hanged himself in an isolation cell at the ranch.

The boy had handed David a suicide note earlier that day detailing the plan, but David gave the note back without believing it. A probation officer's report would later note: ``David became very upset and depressed'' after the suicide. ``On December 29, David was returned to Juvenile Hall as a Ranch failure as he was suffering from severe emotional difficulties which could not be addressed by the Ranch.''

David was subsequently returned to Holden Ranch and, within 10 days, he ran. Although he turned himself in three days later, his escape had brought him more time at the ranch.

This time, he lasted just seven days. Staff again transported the boy back to the county's juvenile hall, noting in a logbook that David had been carrying a razor blade and had sketched a ``suicidal drawing.'' After a week at juvenile hall, he was returned to the same ranch.

Just 13 days later, David made his second escape. He says a staff member at the ranch had locked him in the very isolation room where his friend had died - punishment for throwing a belt across the dormitory.

``He even had to move another kid out of there to put me in,'' David says. ``I asked to be put in another room, but he said no. After that, there was just something in me that I had to get away from there.''

Knowing that ``if you fail ranch twice they send you to CYA,'' David stayed away for three weeks - but at his parents' urging again turned himself in.

``We wanted to teach David to do the right thing, to accept responsibility for his actions,'' Mrs. D. says. ``Now, I think we're sorry we didn't send him out of state to relatives.''

In court, Santa Clara County probation officers recommended that David be sent to the state-operated CYA.

A final probation report on the boy states that he ``is in need of control, supervision and evaluation that can be provided by a ninety days [sic] commitment to the California Youth Authority. ... If David is serious about suicide, the Youth Authority is best equipped to work with him.''

David says he vividly remembers the morning CYA officials came to take him into state custody.

``I was awakened about 5 in the morning, and there were all these big men standing around me - and one woman with leg and arm shackles,'' he says.

David came into the Northern Reception Center-Clinic as a suicide risk. ``They put me right away into a suicide-watch room,'' David says.

Clad in underwear, T-shirt, and socks, he stayed for most of three days in a tiny room with a toilet, sink, metal bed frame, mattress, and one blanket. ``They had a cam- era in there to watch you, but no one ever came back and talked to you,'' David says. ``Most of the time, I read `The Dead Zone' and slept.''

CYA officials say that every one of their 9,000 wards needs to be imprisoned to protect public safety. The NCIA's Mr. Macallair disagrees, and sees David as a case in point. He says the boy - a nonviolent offender who is possibly haunted by his friend's suicide - would be better served in a strenuous wilderness-type program that builds self-confidence, such as Outward Bound. Another alternative, after David returned to the community, would be to provide him with intensive, daily supervision, Macallair says.

California's Youthful Offender Parole Board, in evaluating David's case, determined that the boy needed 18 months with the CYA. He is now at O.H. Close School in Stockton, has just turned 17, and is increasingly wrapped up in the gang culture that permeates CYA institutions.

He's had stitches in his lip, and in the back of the head where he got hit with a brush. He has three chipped teeth now and scars on his arms from razor cuts. He is accumulating ``time adds'' for fighting. ``Very few people can come in and do time and not fight,'' David says. ``People pick fights with you. They steal your stuff or stick their fingers in your face.

``If you keep letting them do it then you're `weak,' and they'll keep coming after you.''

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